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Garrett v. Wexford Health

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 10, 2019

WEXFORD HEALTH; DR. NAJI MUHAMMAD, Medical Director; DEBRA YOUNKIN, Corrections Health Administrator Nurse; JANET PEARSON, Nurse Supervisor; DEB CUTSHALL, PHS Administrator; DR. KATHRI, Psychologist; STEVEN GLUNT; P.A. PHYSICIAN JOE; P.A. PHYSICIAN CASEY; NURSE LORI; NURSE DEBBIE; NURSE RODGER; NURSE JOHN; NURSE HANNA; SUPERINTENDENT K. CAMERON; DEPUTY SUPERINTENDENT DAVID CLOSE; DEPUTY SUPERINTENDENT (SECURITY) K. HOLLINBAUGH; DORETTA CHENCHARICK, Grievance Coordinator/Superintendent's Assistant; JOEL BARROWS, Major of Unit Managers; JAMES MORRIS, Major of the Guard; PEGGY BAUCHMAN, Business Manager; TRACEY HAMER, Personnel Officer; CAPTAIN BRUMBAUGH; CAPTAIN MILLER; LT. SHEA, Security Lieutenant; LT. HORTON; Security Lieutenant; LT. LEWIS, Training Lieutenant; LT. GLASS; L.S. KERNS-BARR, Hearing Examiners/Committee; F. NUNEZ; JACK WALMER, Licensed Psychology Manager; PROGRAM REVIEW COMMITTEE (PRC); M.J. BARBER, Unit Manager, "F" Unit; MR. SHETLER, Unit Manager, "C" Unit; MS. COGAN, Corrections Counselor, "F" Unit; MR. LITTLE, Corrections Counselor, "C" Unit; SGT. SNIPES, Block Sergeant "F" Unit;SGT. JAMES, Block Sergeant "F" Unit; SGT. YOUNG, Block Sergeant "F" Unit; MEDICAL OFFICER LONDON; MEDICAL OFFICER OWENS; OFFICER GARVEY, R.H.U. L-5 Security; OFFICER UNCLES, R.H.U. L-5 Security

          Argued June 26, 2019

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania District Court No. 3-14-cv-00031 District Judge: The Honorable Kim R. Gibson

          Justin Berg [ARGUED] University of Pennsylvania Stuart T. Steinberg Cory A. Ward Dechert LLP Counsel for Appellant

          Samuel H. Foreman [ARGUED] Benjamin M. Lombard Weber Gallagher Simpson Stapleton Fires & Newby Counsel for Appellees Naji, Cutshall, Nagel, Thornley, and Wexford Health Sources, Inc.

          Mary L. Friedline Kemal A. Mericli [ARGUED] Daniel B. Mullen Counsel for Appellee Younkin

          Cassidy L. Neal [ARGUED] Matis Baum & O'Connor Counsel for Appellee Kahtri

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, CHAGARES and GREENAWAY, JR., Circuit Judges



         Kareem Garrett sued prison officials claiming that they were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs and that they retaliated against him. The District Court dismissed many of Garrett's claims for failure to fully exhaust administrative remedies pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), and dismissed the remainder of his claims for failure to satisfy the "short and plain statement" requirement of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Because we conclude that the District Court erred in dismissing the claims, we will vacate and remand this matter for further proceedings.



         On February 14, 2014, Garrett, then a prisoner at SCI Houtzdale, filed a six-page pro se civil rights complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Garrett alleged that, while incarcerated, he had been prescribed a wheelchair and walker to assist him with mobility. Upon being transferred to SCI Houtzdale in January 2014, medical staff at that facility allegedly discontinued Garrett's use of a walker and wheelchair, forbade him from receiving walking assistance from other inmates, and discontinued his "psych" medication.

         According to Garrett, these decisions severely restricted his mobility, caused falls giving rise to further serious injury, and prevented him from accessing both medication and food. In addition, he alleged that the medical staff conducted a rectal examination without his consent and that this amounted to sexual assault. Garrett named six individual defendants[1] and sought injunctive and declaratory relief and compensatory and punitive damages. He acknowledged on the first page of his complaint that, although he had filed grievances concerning his claims, the grievance process was not complete.


         On February 24, 2014, Garrett's complaint was transferred to the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the District in which SCI Houtzdale is located. Garrett filed an amended complaint as of right in March 2014, submitting lengthier and more detailed allegations and adding additional staff as defendants.[2] Garrett re-alleged the denial of medication and assistive devices, which led to aggravated injuries and serious falls, missed meals, the inability to receive medication on the "pill line," denial of access to previously prescribed medications, and the inability to bathe himself. And he included new claims. For instance, he alleged that staff issued him "misconducts" for asking for assistance with walking and that they declined to provide health care after falls and laughed when he fell and struggled on the floor. He also alleged that he experienced retaliation for filing grievances and for pursuing his § 1983 complaint. Garrett identified grievances that he had filed concerning some of these claims.

         On April 17, 2014, the Secretary's Office of Inmate Grievances and Appeals issued a Final Appeal Decision on seven of Garrett's grievances concerning his alleged mistreatment at SCI Houtzdale.[3] The Final Appeal Decision indicates that "[Garrett's] concern of not being provided proper medical care was reviewed along with [his] medical record by the staff of the Bureau of Health Care Services. It was determined that the medical care provided was reasonable and appropriate. . . . No evidence of neglect or deliberate indifference has been found."[4] Joint Appendix ("JA") 163.


         Soon thereafter, on June 3, 2014, Garrett filed a second amended complaint (SAC), having been granted leave from the District Court to do so. The SAC named more than forty defendants.[5] Garrett once again complained of inadequate medical treatment, including the withholding of a walker and wheelchair. He alleged that staff did not provide treatment after falls, relegated him to solitary confinement for asking for help walking, and denied him meals. He added descriptions of additional incidents, including an occasion on March 20, 2014, when medical staff left him strapped to a stretcher for nine hours without treatment, unable to move or relieve himself and, later, denied him access to a handicapped-accessible shower in which to clean up after soiling himself. Garrett also alleged that he was denied access to a "disability gym" as part of his medical treatment. The SAC averred that Garrett had "[e]xhaust[ed] [a]ll [a]dministrative [r]emedies." JA 89.

         Several groups of defendants filed motions to dismiss the SAC. In December 2014, Garrett requested a stay until after his expected release in March 2015 in order to attempt to obtain private counsel.[6] The Magistrate Judge granted the stay request and directed that Garrett must respond to the motions to dismiss by May 15, 2015.[7] In April, Garrett sought an additional stay, which the Magistrate Judge granted.

         On July 15, 2015, Garrett notified the District Court that he had been released on May 19, 2015. He also moved to lift the stay and for appointment of counsel. The Magistrate Judge lifted the stay, denied the counsel motion without prejudice, directed Garrett to update his financial information in light of his release from prison, and set a deadline for Garrett to respond to the motions to dismiss.

         Garrett timely responded to the motions to dismiss and again sought to amend the complaint. In February 2016, the Magistrate Judge granted his motion to amend.


         The Third Amended Complaint (TAC) (which Garrett mistakenly titled "Second Amended Complaint") was docketed on February 5, 2016. In the TAC, in addition to pursuing relief under § 1983, Garrett added a reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The TAC added more than thirty additional defendants, [8] realleged the prior claims concerning the alleged denial of medical care, and added several supplemental claims, including claims of retaliation.[9] Garrett alleged that he had filed grievances as to some of these claims, and the record reflects that he had fully exhausted at least three of them prior to his release.

         Several groups of defendants again filed motions to dismiss. In support of dismissal, defendants Khatri, Dr. Naji, Cutshall, Thornley, and Nagel (collectively referred to as the Medical Defendants[10]) argued that the complaint should be dismissed for failure to properly exhaust administrative remedies under the PLRA. The Magistrate Judge converted the Medical Defendants' motions to motions for summary judgment. The remaining defendants (collectively referred to as the Corrections Defendants) did not assert an administrative exhaustion defense. Instead, the Corrections Defendants argued that the TAC failed to comply with Rules 8 and 12 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and argued that they were entitled to dismissal or, in the alternative, to a more definite statement under Rule 12(e).

         On July 14, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a report and recommendation (R&R) recommending that the claims against the Medical Defendants be dismissed for failure to fully exhaust administrative remedies. Relying upon our decision in Ahmed v. Dragovich, 297 F.3d 201, 210 (3d Cir. 2002), the Magistrate Judge concluded that Garrett's status as a prisoner, and the status of the administrative grievance process, must be considered as of the time Garrett filed his original complaint (February 2014), not as of the filing of the TAC (February 2016). Thus, although many of Garrett's claims were administratively exhausted and he was no longer in prison by the time he filed the TAC, the Magistrate Judge recommended that summary judgment be granted in favor of the Medical Defendants based on Garrett's initial failure to exhaust.

         As to the Corrections Defendants, the Magistrate Judge observed that the TAC consisted of 36 typewritten pages containing 90 paragraphs, "yet there is virtually no detail as to who did what and the dates of when the violations allegedly occurred." JA 9. The R&R noted that Garrett had cited the ADA but had purported to file his complaint only under § 1983, that the TAC contained references to injunctive relief, which was moot due to Garrett's release, and that the TAC referred to the prior iterations of the complaints as "supplemental" to the original complaint, rather than as amendments. In addition, the R&R observed that the TAC referred to more than 60 defendants, but only 37 had been served.

         The Magistrate Judge determined that requiring the Corrections Defendants to respond to the TAC's allegations as pleaded would be unreasonable, and therefore recommended granting the motion for a more definite statement. She expressly cautioned Garrett that this last opportunity to amend should not be viewed as an invitation to add new and unrelated allegations or defendants. She further cautioned that a failure to comply would result in dismissal. Finally, the Magistrate Judge stated that any claims against the Corrections Defendants, like the claims against the Medical Defendants, could be subject to dismissal for failure to exhaust "if [Garrett] failed to exhaust those claims prior to bringing this lawsuit." JA 11. On September 9, 2016, the District Court adopted the R&R and issued an appropriate opinion and order.


         On November 21, 2016, Garrett filed his Fourth Amended Complaint (FAC). The FAC, at fifteen typewritten pages, is less than half the length of the TAC. Consistent with the Magistrate Judge's instructions, the FAC included dates and times for most of the alleged events, trimmed the number of defendants, [11] and omitted most of the extraneous references to the ADA and injunctive relief.[12] In many paragraphs of the FAC, Garrett included a copy of the entire list of more than fifty defendants, broadly alleging that all of the defendants somehow directly participated in his mistreatment, were aware of that mistreatment and did not step in to help him, or participated in retaliation against him.

         The FAC also included Garrett's claims against the Corrections Defendants which had first appeared in the TAC. Contrary to the Magistrate Judge's direction, Garrett re-pleaded the previously dismissed claims against the Medical Defendants alleging deliberate indifference to his medical needs beginning in January 2014. Garrett did, however, adhere to her instruction not to present new claims in the FAC.

         On June 12, 2017, the Magistrate Judge issued yet another R&R. In it, she again recommended dismissal of the claims against the Medical Defendants for the same reason she had previously given-Garrett's failure to exhaust administrative remedies as of the initial February 2014 filing date.[13] She recommended that the claims against the Corrections Defendants also be dismissed because "Plaintiff has utterly failed to once again comply with Rule 8," concluding that the FAC was neither "short" nor "plain." JA 22. She also concluded that the FAC lacks the facial plausibility to survive a motion to dismiss. The Magistrate Judge stated: "Plaintiff's factual and legal allegations are, to a substantial extent, incomprehensible. There is still virtually no detail as to who did what and when." JA 22. She therefore recommended that the FAC be dismissed in its entirety for failure to comply with Rule 8.

         On October 11, 2017, the District Court overruled Garrett's objections to the R&R, adopted the Magistrate Judge's recommendations, dismissed the claims against the Medical Defendants for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, dismissed the claims against the Corrections Defendants pursuant to Rule 8, and closed the case. Garrett timely appealed.[14]


         The PLRA provides in relevant part: "No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). Because he was a prisoner in February 2014, the PLRA applied to Garrett when he filed his original complaint. The grievance process was not complete as of that date. But Garrett later was released from prison, and subsequently filed the TAC (and, later, the FAC). Nonetheless, the District Court interpreted the PLRA's "[n]o action shall be brought" language to require that administrative exhaustion be complete as of the filing of the initial complaint, regardless of whether the complaint is supplemented or amended after a change in the plaintiff's custody status.[16] We review the District Court's interpretation of the PLRA de novo. Abdul-Akbar v. McKelvie, 239 F.3d 307, 311 (3d Cir. 2001) (en banc).


         Garrett's TAC served two functions. It presented additional claims arising out of the events described in the original complaint, but which Garrett had not set forth in prior pleadings. It also presented new facts and claims that arose only after the filing of the original complaint, including Garrett's release from prison. Accordingly, under Rules 15(a) and 15(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the TAC became both an amended complaint and a supplemental complaint.[17] See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a), 15(d). We therefore begin our discussion by considering the purpose and effect of filing a supplemental or amended complaint under Rule 15.

         "The function of Rule 15(a), which provides generally for the amendment of pleadings, is to enable a party to assert matters that were overlooked or were unknown at the time the party interposed the original complaint." 6 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1473 (3d ed. 2019). Rule 15(a) embodies the federal courts' policy of liberal pleading amendment by ensuring that an inadvertent error in, or omission from, an original pleading will not preclude a party from securing relief on the merits of his claim. Arthur v. Maersk, Inc., 434 F.3d 196, 202 (3d Cir. 2006). In general, an amended pleading supersedes the original pleading and renders the original pleading a nullity. Palakovic, 854 F.3d at 220; Wright & Miller, supra, § 1476. Thus, the most recently filed amended complaint becomes the operative pleading. See W. Run Student Hous. Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat'l Bank, 712 F.3d 165, 171 (3d Cir. 2013). It has long been the rule then that where a party's status determines a statute's applicability, it is his status at the time of the amendment and not at the time of the original filing that determines whether a statutory precondition to suit has been satisfied.[18] See, e.g., Mo., K&T Railway Co. v. Wulf, 226 U.S. 570, 575 (1913) (amended petition related back to commencement of action and cured initially improper pleading); New Rock Asset Partners, L.P. v. Preferred Entity Advancements, Inc., 101 F.3d 1492, 1503 (3d Cir. 1996) (subject matter jurisdiction must be reassessed as of the filing of the amended complaint).

         Rule 15(d) operates in conjunction with Rule 15(a). Upon motion and reasonable notice, Rule 15(d) allows a court to grant a party the ability to "serve a supplemental pleading setting out any transaction, occurrence, or event that happened after the date of the pleading to be supplemented." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(d). Thus, rather than set forth additional events that occurred before the original complaint was filed, as does a Rule 15(a) amendment, a supplemental pleading under Rule 15(d) presents more recent events. Rule 15(d) thus promotes a complete adjudication of the dispute between the parties. See William Inglis & Sons Baking Co. v. ITT Cont'l Baking Co., 668 F.2d 1014, 1057 (9th Cir. 1981).

         Rule 15(d) expressly provides that supplementation may be permitted "even though the original pleading is defective in stating a claim or defense." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(d). Supplementation under Rule 15(d) therefore can be employed to allege subsequent facts to cure a deficient pleading. See Mathews v. Diaz, 426 U.S. 67, 75 & n.8 (1976) (recognizing that plaintiff who had not satisfied "a nonwaivable condition of jurisdiction" before filing suit had subsequently satisfied the condition, so "[a] supplemental complaint in the District Court would have eliminated this jurisdictional issue"); see also, e.g., U.S. ex rel. Gadbois v. PharMerica Corp., 809 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2015) (discussing the use of Rule 15(d) to add newly arising facts to cure pleading defects such as lack of subject matter jurisdiction or standing).

         Our recent decision in T Mobile Ne. LLC v. City of Wilmington, Del., 913 F.3d 311 (3d Cir. 2019), illustrates the operation of Rule 15(d) to cure an initially defective complaint. There, T Mobile sought to proceed in district court pursuant to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA), which permits a disappointed wireless service provider to seek review of a zoning board decision "within 30 days after" a zoning authority's "final action." 47 U.S.C. § 332(c)(7)(B)(v). T Mobile filed its complaint within 30 days after the zoning board's oral decision, not waiting for the subsequent written decision, which followed nearly a year later. T Mobile, 913 F.3d at 316-17. The District Court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to proceed, despite T Mobile's later-filed supplemental complaint addressing the issuance of the final written decision. Id. at 317.

         On appeal, we agreed with the District Court that the board's written decision constituted the appealable "final action" under the TCA, and so T Mobile's complaint was not yet ripe when it was originally filed. Id. at 318, 323. We determined that the TCA's 30-day filing requirement is non-jurisdictional, so the later-filed supplemental complaint, which T Mobile belatedly filed more than 30 days after the board's "final action," was not necessarily barred. Id. at 324. We then concluded that T Mobile's supplemental complaint could- and did-relate back to the date of the initial complaint to cure its initial unripeness. Id. at 326.

         We observed that the District Court's decision to grant T Mobile's motion to supplement its complaint under Rule 15(d) was a proper exercise of its discretion. Indeed, we described the decision as "just" because the defendant "had long since had notice of the event-the filing of the written denial-that occurred after the initial pleading." Id. Moreover, Rule 15(d)'s express terms permit supplementation where an original pleading is defective. Id.

         Although Rule 15(d) does not expressly indicate whether or when a supplemental pleading can relate back to the original complaint, we determined that "case law and secondary sources have long instructed that once a supplemental complaint is granted, it is treated like an amended complaint for purposes of relation back." Id. at 327. Thus, like an amended complaint, a supplemental complaint may "relate back" when it "asserts a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out-or attempted to be set out-in the original pleading." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(B). Because T Mobile's original and supplemental complaints both "rel[ied] on the same core facts," relation back was proper. T Mobile, 913 F.3d at 328.

         As T Mobile makes clear, a supplemental complaint under Rule 15(d) that relates back to the original complaint may cure the filing defect in the original complaint. Id. We observed that this is consistent with the policy underlying Rule 15: "The clear preference embodied in Rule 15 is for merits-based decision making." Id. We also noted that many courts have permitted the use of relation back to address and cure filing defects, for instance, by permitting a party to re-plead to establish subject matter jurisdiction or to drop a party that would bar the exercise of diversity jurisdiction. Id. at 328-29. This preference for merits-based decision making and the historical use of Rule 15(d) ...

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